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How judges, probate attorneys, and guardianship orgs abuse the vulnerable

Photo: Photos by Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Photos by Michael Barajas

Joy Powers woke from a horrific car wreck to find she'd been appointed a guardian and stripped of her rights. Months later, court-appointed fees drained her life savings

Photo: , License: N/A

A Bexar County court twice investigated whether Jack Hood was incapacitated when he contested a guardianship case involving his wife of 35 years.


Three forensic psychiatrists would eventually disagree with Bailey, declaring that Dahlman is mentally fit and capable of spending her money as she pleases — though she might be better served by keeping a closer eye on her checkbook balance, one psychiatrist wrote. Still, despite three expert opinions to the contrary, a court-appointed investigator and lawyers for Dahlman's three daughters continued to push for guardianship, and over the course of the summer Dahlman had to continue to fight for her financial freedom in court while also fighting nearly $100,000 in fees attorneys tried to draw from her estate.

"They're going to bankrupt Mary for the foreseeable future just so they can get paid in full," Dahlman's attorney Phil Ross said as he exited a court hearing in July.

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As guardianships rise, advocates in Texas and elsewhere claim cabals of judges, close-knit networks of probate attorneys, and guardianship organizations are free to pilfer the pocketbooks of the elderly and vulnerable, wrongly seizing possessions, kicking folks into nursing homes and hospices before their time, splitting up estates and separating parents from their disabled children.

"After seeing many of these cases play out, I've boiled it down to this: it's the deception of protection," said Debby Valdez, a vocal San Antonio-based activist behind the advocacy group Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled and Elderly (GRADE), whose members regularly testify at committee hearings at the Texas Legislature. GRADE gets regular calls and emails from families across the state, Valdez says, the common element being family members severed from aging parents or disabled children without knowledge, or those frightened and confused over the prospect of having their lives, finances, and futures put in the hands of court-appointed guardians.

With GRADE's bullhorn, many families have stepped forward in recent years accusing courts of needlessly taking control of elderly people and their estates. Valdez recently helped speak out for James Pride, 78, an Air Force veteran from the Dallas area who awoke from a stroke in 2010 to find the court had appointed a guardian over him and frozen his assets. And Valdez says it's been a long, hard, and costly road trying to get his personal and financial freedom back.

Similar stories have played out in Bexar County courts. One woman woke from a horrific car wreck to find she'd been appointed a guardian and declared incompetent to touch her own money. In the process of regaining her freedom, she wound up on the street while local attorneys pulled thousands from her life savings in court-approved fees. Lawyers drained hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mary Dahlman's estate while arguing she couldn't manage her own finances, though three medical experts testified to the contrary. And one San Antonio woman, after years of fighting for guardianship of her disabled daughter in Bexar and Travis counties, has now been completely cut off from her daughter after a court-appointed guardian terminated visits last month.

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